Hello, my name is Ben Cobley. On this blog I hope to share some of my better thoughts on politics, philosophy, society, and the Left, in addition to some other interesting stuff.
The name A Free Left Blog comes from a concern that the political and cultural Left is dominated by forms of ‘group think’ which shut down free thinking rather than encourage it. I want to challenge this while promoting a Left which is genuinely liberal but rooted in time and place.
“Part of what it is to be courageous is to see reality accurately and to respond well in the face of it." ~ Jonathan Lear
I was proposing the motion alongside Dr Gerard Lyons (economic adviser to the Mayor of London), with journalist Hugo Dixon and
Professor of Political Theory Katrin Flikschuh on the other side arguing against.
Each panellist had seven minutes to speak, followed by questions from the other
side and then questions from the audience.
Dr Gerard Lyons making his case for leaving the EU.
[This is an amalgam of what I had planned to say in my speech and what
I did say – so I missed out some of this in actual delivery while adding some ‘umms’
and ‘errs’ and various other stuff]
The whole debate is now available to listen via a podcast here.
I want to start off by emphasising that I’m actually a
pro-European. I always have been. I even like an idea of the EU (as an idea, albeit
not the idea).
But on the balance I think we should leave the EU. I’m
probably about 80-20 or 70-30 in favour, but this is the political choice I’ve
There are a lot of aspects to this debate but the one I’m
going to focus on as probably the most important is borders and citizenship.
It’s surely fundamental to any nation and nation-state
that it has control over who can come to live, work and own land within its
borders. But Britain does not have this in the EU. You can see where
accountability lies from David Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’. Whether you agree
with it or not, he had a proposal which he put to the people in a manifesto to
restrict EU migrant in-work benefits. But he went off to Brussels and 27 other
leaders said ‘no way’, so he couldn’t do it. This shows how accountability
is working for us in our democracy at the moment: Cameron isn’t accountable to
the British people but to these other EU leaders.
Britain is actually a pretty small and crowded piece of
land but it is open to pretty much unlimited population growth as we stand in
the EU. England is where almost all migrants come to settle and is now the most
crowded country in Europe.
In a narrow sense the booming housing market this creates
is good for people with assets and for the Exchequer in bringing in tax
receipts from all the buying and selling. But for people who are not so
fortunate, who are not asset owners and do not earn big wages, the chance of
living in the place where you grew up and where your family and friends live is
passing out of reach.
A lot of people especially on the liberal-left are in
denial about this link, but it’s one of the most basic laws of economics –
increased demand puts upward pressure on prices. There’s no way around it.
But it also costs us all, for this throws more and more
people on to the mercy of the state. The housing benefit bill in particular has
been ballooning recently. In 2015 it hit £25 billion. The places it has been
increasing most are here in London and towns like Cambridge, Oxford,
Bournemouth and Milton Keynes where population growth has been most pronounced.
This lack of control adds to the character of our politics
as something that is done to us, that happens to us without any involvement on
our part. It contributes to a general malaise in politics and democracy in
which many people cannot be bothered to vote, and there is some reason for
that, for what the political parties are dealing with are relatively marginal
For me, the environment is very important. But continual
mass immigration means continual expansion into our environment, treating our
land as a resource to try and meet the needs of the growing population and
economy: for more housing, more roads, more schools, more everything.
The Green and Pleasant Land is becoming progressively less
green and more cramped. We are progressively losing the luxury of space and
submitting ourselves to a world of urban sprawl, noise, congestion and
Now leaving the EU will
not solve these problems. But it will give us and the people we elect the ability to do something about them.
This is a crucial point about leaving. It does not commit us to a type of
politics. It simply re-asserts the primacy of the relationship between electors
and elected which being in the EU dilutes. This will make our politics and our
democracy more meaningful. It would bring back essential political questions to
us and to people we elect.
But if we’re going to do anything about these issues, I’m
afraid we have to leave the EU.
Also, there is the cost. For ceding control of all this
and more through the European Court of Justice and the European Commission, we
pay £250 million a week, which breaks down to £480 per household per year. This
is not a small amount and could prove useful at home.
Probably the best argument of those who want us to stay is that
Britain will lose influence in the world. There is some truth in this, in that
Britain’s elites and their allies like in America will have less influence on
what the rest of Europe thinks and does. We have a 28th share or
perhaps to be more generous and realistic an eighth or maybe even a fifth of a
share of influence at the European ‘top table’.
So I think it might be right to call this referendum a
choice between having control over our own country or our elites having a share
of control over others.
Many thanks to the
LSE Forum for Philosophy for the invite.
I have changed my mind on Europe. Or perhaps it’s better
to say that I have now properly
thought about it, looking not through a lens of vaguely liking ‘Europe’, foreign
countries and people but for what the EU is and does as an institution.
This forthcoming referendum on 23rd June is
not on ‘Europe’ as a place, but the EU as an institution, one which has great
power over Britain and whose 27 other leaders have the power of veto over even
quite modest domestic legislation here.
We have just seen the latter point with David Cameron’s watered-down
‘renegotiation’ or ‘deal’ demonstrating in stark terms how our government no
longer has the power to decide the country’s future in the interests of its
citizens. It is subservient not just to veto from the leaders of France, Greece,
Poland, Slovakia, Portugal and others, but also to the diktats of the
unelected, virtually unaccountable European Commission and European Court of
We may like some of those diktats, for example on
employment protections. But it perhaps reflects the sorry state of the left
that so many of us have been happy to trade our own ability to make such rules,
while throwing a tidy €10 billion a year or €31 million a day net into the bargain.
The employment protection point is part of the argument
being put forward by Labour and other lefty people that the EU is more
‘progressive’ than the British government. But this is an anti-democratic
argument – something its advocates seem to be only dimly-aware of. It’s a
preference for the EU as a relatively benign if expensive dictatorship over the
contingencies of British democracy, less than a hundred years after we become a
Turn to Labourites in favour of leaving the EU and you
find Frank Field, Kate Hoey and Gisela Stuart: people who when they speak, you
listen, because you know they will not be garbling whatever Labour’s
narrowed-down consensus view is. They have actually thought about it for
themselves and come to their own conclusions rather than accepting the levelled
down generic view of the tribe.
On the Tory side too, MPs who are genuinely worth
listening to like Sarah Wollaston and Zac Goldsmith have declared for Leave.
There is currently a sport going on from Remainers listing all the unappetising
individuals on the leave side. Nigel Farage, George Galloway, Iain Duncan Smith
and Chris Grayling may not be attractive bedfellows, but they are no worse than
George Osborne, Jeremy Hunt, Phillip Hammond and Michael Fallon on the other
side. Throwing mud has a place in politics, but we’re best off sticking to the
The EU is not all bad and it does facilitate valuable cooperation
in many areas. But is that ability to sit in meetings anywhere near worth the extreme
expense of it and all the meddling? EU institutions are expert at telling governments
and people what they can and can’t do, but have proved themselves completely incapable
of dealing with their own problems like the migrants/refugee crisis, the Euro
crisis and Greek default.
The restrictions it imposes prevent individual governments
and authorities from acting to deal with their own problems. I was watching the
Chelsea vs Manchester City FA Cup tie yesterday – a game in which the former
put out its first eleven and latter played a bunch of youngsters from its £200
million Academy. Yet only two out of 22 starting players were British, let
alone English. Leaving the EU would not solve this problem, but it would make
it possible for government and football authorities to try and do something
Football is a microcosm for what has been going on in British
economy and society over the past twenty years. We have been importing from
abroad rather than nurturing from within; growing by acquisition rather than
organically. Leaving the EU would not be a panacea, but again it would give our
own authorities more opportunities to intervene and make changes where they see
fit. This is about our ability to control our own destiny.
On the other side, looking at arguments from Remain campaigners
and you see a consistent theme: of risk, of dangers; but these are the risks
and dangers of freedom. Politicians who are afraid of having more power are
showing their lack of confidence in themselves and in government, which makes
it all the more interesting how liberals and the left have gone this way. It is
remarkable how ‘progressives’ have become so conservative.
A BBC News guy who was interviewed on his own channel the
other day put it as well as anyone, that those ranged on the Remain side – from
the grey leaders of Brussels to President Obama, big business bosses and all
the major political parties – have the distinct appearance of a sort of ‘global
Remainers have not been backward in throwing more loaded
insults at Leavers – Europhobes, xenophobes, anti-Europeans, little Englanders
etc. This has mostly been coming from liberal-left In supporters, whose
language is remarkably absolutist– as if their position comes from a higher
authority and a higher law [EU law?]: conferring morality, knowledge and
rationality onto them and immorality, ignorance and irrationality onto their
This sort of nonsense works both ways: it annoys and alienates
those like me who are now genuinely Euro-sceptic, but it also appeals to the
tribal, herd instinct of people not wanting to stand out and look stupid in the
eyes of their peers. I don’t know which of those tendencies will prove stronger,
but it has made me more resolute that I’m for Leave.
The language of human ‘identity’ often misleads us into
thinking about it as something out there
which matches something in here – a literal
‘it’ which is identical in both, rather like in a mathematical equation.
In this way you would have
an English identity for example if you somehow matched up to a list of English
identifiers which we can measure you against. There is an ‘it’ of Englishness out
there in this sort of account, and whoever has access to it can decree how
English you are by comparing their checklist to you and your likes, dislikes, activities
My point here is that someone
else other than you can carry out this operation of identity without involving
you at all. It is an authoritarian relation, attained by someone with authority
matching their knowledge of what an identity is against you and coming up with
a result on their terms of what these
‘its’ - of identity and you - are.
The same goes when we measure up any sort of identity –
to Englishness, to the Labour Party or to the left more generally for example –
it is our ‘it’ we are measuring up to
and it is us doing it. The activity of measuring up and prescribing
what measurements apply is what makes the identification.
We might see here how identity is better thought about as
a relation. We can administrate it to
ourselves and to other people and we can accept the administrations of others,
but the essence of it lies in a relation, and relations don’t have to be
grounded in any type of authority doling out knowledge and prescribing what ‘it’
is. I may have an intense attachment to the land and/or the music of England for
example without wanting to wave the flag around or support the football team or
without living in or having been born in England at all.
For the Labour Party now, Englishness and England have become
live issues that many in and around the party have started to concern
themselves with – better late than never we might say. During the week I
attended the first seminar of a series at Westminster being run by the former
Labour MP John Denham, who has been on the case for a while now and is pushing
it further from a new position as Professor of English Identity and Politics at
Winchester University. You can see John’s reflections on this first seminar (entitled Does England Matter?), on his website the
There were some interesting contributions from Labour
politicians including Lisa Nandy MP, Camden Council leader Sarah Hayward and
other MPs including Caroline Flint, Jonny Reynolds and Gavin Shuker – plus others
like the academic Mike Kenny and the Labour research expert Lewis Baston. I
also garbled out a few words offering caution on getting too prescriptive about
identity and favouring a new English national anthem as a great way to open up
the space of identity - in terms of something to be explored in a democratic process rather than administered from above. Toby Perkins, another Labour MP, has a Private
Members’ Bill on a new anthem going through Parliament, but there was little if
any mention, let alone support for this, from our gathered politicians.
It is early days, and the whole point of such processes
is to get where you’re going through discussion and reflection and further
discussion. But I couldn’t help but feel that old politician’s instinct and drive
to administrate hanging in the air. We can’t quite help ourselves in trying to
nail these things down – to assert and administrate who we are, what it (our version of Englishness or England) is
and see who goes along with it and who doesn’t. It therefore becomes subsumed
into the political process of drawing dividing lines between ‘us’ and ‘them’,
friends and enemies, demarcating who belongs and who doesn’t. In turn this
defeats what should surely be the object of letting more positive, inclusive
versions of Englishness flourish (than those which are commonplace at the
There are significant dangers for the wider Labour and
liberal-left families here, for Englishness as identity at the moment often manifests itself as a negativity (both in relating others and ourselves to it), a
defensiveness and as victimhood. Moreover, that defensiveness and victimhood is
largely directed at things that the dominant factions in Labour and the wider liberal-left
world uphold –particularly continual mass immigration. Labour’s tendency in talking
to itself and fixing its own identity relations is often one which goes directly
against a large body of the population. Simply positing those on to England and
Englishness and saying that what we are is
what England is/should be would be disastrous.
In that respect I think it’s important that we shouldn’t
be in the business of fixing what Englishness
is. However you try and do it, what you fix would not accord with what a great
many people feel about themselves and their world – indeed it could easily
alienate broad swathes from the start. Rather it is best to seek to open it up,
challenge narrow definitions where and when they appear but not fall into the
trap of prescribing or defining ourselves around particular alternatives. Among
other things this means avoiding the tendency to always revert back to how
important immigration and immigrants are to Englishness. There is certainly
some truth in this account, but unless you emphasise how important those of non-immigrant
backgrounds are too, you find yourselves inevitably narrowing to an ‘us’ and ‘them’
that excludes as well as includes and defeats the whole purpose.
These existential questions are inherently delicate and
difficult to deal with, but for Labour they are fraught with difficulty, which perhaps
partly explains why so many in the party want to avoid them altogether.
Nevertheless, with polling showing how a consciousness of English identity has
risen significantly in recent years, they need to be taken on by any political party
with national pretensions, let alone one like Labour which has been showing signs
of possible extinction across much of England.
An ideology is above all a system of belief into which everything must fit and that therefore
assumes a sort of ultimate, absolute knowledge.
This attachment to absolute,
over-arching knowledge is why adherents so easily slip into authoritarian
thought and behaviour. After all, if you know the core truth or the root causes
of what is going on, actual truths presenting themselves to you in reality are of
relatively little importance; indeed it is surely right to ignore them and concentrate
on the more important underlying truth – even (and perhaps especially) if it contradicts what you can see and hear in reality.
From liberal-left practitioners, we can perhaps see this latter
tendency most obviously in the reaction to terrorist attacks committed in the
name of Islam like those in Paris on Friday night.
The cry goes out that this phenomenon 'is nothing to do with Islam’
or 'has nothing to do with religion’ even when the killers keenly and openly justify
their actions in terms of Islam. This is the most extraordinary double-think
you might say, or else simple downright lies.
But it makes perfect sense in terms
of ideology, for in ideology the actual truth is subservient to the real, underlying truth.
In this way it commands what ‘is’, so Islamic terrorism ‘is’ nothing to do with
Islam, even when it quite patently is something to do with it - albeit not everything.
RIP to all the victims of the attacks in Paris and thoughts go out to everyone directly affected by them. Maurice Duruflé's 'Requiem' here is a lovely piece of work, doing what the best music does in these situations and words alone cannot.
Maurice Duruflé's 'Requiem' - in seven parts here, but it's the best recording I've found on Youtube. To open in a new window, click here.
Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote his 6th Symphony partly in
reaction to the land mine that fell on the Café de Paris in London during the
Second World War, a bomb which killed Ken ‘Snakehips’ Johnson and members of his West
Indian Dance Band Orchestra who were performing there.
Vaughan Williams' Symphony No. 6, played by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sir Roger Norrington Click here to create a new window for the video.
In a reference to the victims of that tragedy of war we hear in the symphony’s third movement the snaky, sinuous but ethereal sound of a saxophone backed
up with a pulsing jazz beat. But it is framed by a piece which is tumultuous
and angry, broken with a few moments of introspection and a short window of
radiant beauty towards the end of the first movement. The fourth and final
movement rounds the symphony off with a feeling of drifting and desolation, the
strings evoking a gasping, uneven breath dying out to nothingness.
For me, it is a symphony for the Labour Party right now.
The piece, played with marvellous visceral energy in this version by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Roger
Norrington, starts off furiously with great forces crashing and banging against
one another. The way I am hearing it now referring to Labour, this first
movement depicts the hard left busting in, bringing irresistible hard-driving
momentum and completely overwhelming the Blairite New Labour and Brownite tendencies
in the leadership race. A beautiful melancholic melody briefly pulls us away,
offering a pause for breath and some clarity. But it soon resigns itself to
defeat, submitting to the more powerful forces.
The second movement (starting at 8.10) seems to be where
we are now: adjusting and adapting to the new reality: a place full of edginess
and foreboding but still ticking along with a repeated rat-a-tat to keep us grounded. This ebbs and flows until coming to
a head with a great collision (perhaps with the electorate next year?), marked
by a fusillade of noise which then declines into quiet distress.
The third movement (starting at 17.18) sees a new push
with renewed fury and energy, but offering little joy or solace except for the
ethereal saxophone solos suggesting a different and better world that could
have been. After a brief lull it breaks out into a relentless, crashing,
compulsive tumult of noise. But this soon breaks down, giving way to the final
movement, the Epilogue.
At the time when the symphony was released to the world
in 1948 (and it was played live more than a hundred times within two years), some
critics interpreted this eerie finale as like wandering in the ruins of a
nuclear holocaust. Vaughan Williams himself rejected these interpretations,
quoting Prospero’s words from Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’: “We are such stuff
as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep”.
In those terms it evokes what some Labour people were
saying about party unity during the Ed Miliband years: ‘the quietness of the
I’m not one for making prophecies, but the symphony seems
to have a particular resonance at the moment.
It's like the first movement has happened, the second is
happening now and the angry clashes of the third will follow sooner or later
when the resurgent hard left finds its way blocked and lashes out in a final
confrontation against challengers and critics.
The challenge for those who see disaster ahead is to get
into a position where they can win that confrontation and prevent this
symphony’s bleak final movement coming to pass.Without some sort of major change and intervention, it surely will
though. The old ways do not work anymore, if they ever did indeed without the charisma and flawed vision of Tony Blair.
From the ‘Blue Labour’ or ‘One Nation Labour’ tendency, Jon
Cruddas has been busy producing some fascinating analysis on the last election and what it means for Labour.
Frank Field has also been getting out there, pushing his prescient but
unpopular messages (with the Labour tribe) about the importance of national borders in the ultra-globalised environment in which
we find ourselves (and also latterly on tax credits).
From the more mainstream centrist wing of Labour, Luke
Akehurst has been doing sterling work promoting the ‘Labour First’ grouping as a countervailing force to the Corbynistas, with new
deputy leader Tom Watson and leadership candidate Yvette Cooper notable
attendees at its meeting during the Brighton conference.
We shall see what happens. Jeremy Corbyn has a huge
mandate from members and supporters that should be respected. It could easily
break down though, especially if and when election results go against Labour
next May and the unions decide it’s time to be more realistic. Whether a
reversion to a new version of the old status quo will prove to be the way forward remains to
Personally, I have serious doubts and am more interested
in what the likes of Cruddas and Field have to say. However, as we can hear in the
6th Symphony featured here, a nice tune counts for little against
brute political force.